Judge Presses PG&E for Zogg Fire Answers

A house is seen burst into flames during the Zogg fire.
Go Nakamura/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A judge is pressing PG&E to explain why one of its contract tree inspectors concluded an apparently healthy but leaning tree that may have started the the Zogg fire, didn’t need to be cut down -- when state law suggests otherwise.

At issue is the fire in Shasta County last October that took four lives and has been tied a leaning Gray pine that fell onto a PG&E powerline in high winds.

In an order Thursday, U.S. Judge William Alsup pointed to the sworn account of one former PG&E inspector who assessed the area around the origin of the fire in 2018.

The unidentified inspector told the court that while he did not “specifically remember inspecting the Gray Pine” at issue, his review of a photo of the leaning tree taken in 2019 suggested that it was healthy and “in compliance with all vegetation management standards governing its proximity to the power lines.’’

He added that he had seen other similarly leaning trees in earlier annual patrols of the area.

“Based on my experience, I know that before the Zogg Fire there were countless healthy trees along Route 50 that exhibit a similar or more drastic lean toward power lines that would be affected by a fall,” he told the court. “That, however, is not a basis to remove the tree under applicable vegetation management standards absent concerns about the health of the tree or out-of-compliance proximity to a power line.’’

But in his order on Thursday, Alsup cited a provision of state law requiring that any leaning tree that could endanger a power line be removed ”regardless of its health.” He also questioned the idea that the tree was healthy, given that another inspector had found prior fire damage.

Separately, Alsup demanded that one of the company’s attorneys respond under oath to questions about what he said at an earlier hearing. At that hearing, Alsup challenged lawyer Kevin Orsini over PG&E’s conduct.

“I think it was reckless,” the judge said, “maybe criminally reckless for PG&E to have left that tree, that Gray pine looming. It was leaning at a 60-degree angle over the line.’’

“That tree was a clear and present danger to the line and whoever made the decision to leave that tree up, should be looked at very carefully. Why didn’t you take it down? Why was that tree left up?” the judge asked PG&E’s lawyer.

But Orsini insisted that was because three separate patrols carried out before the Zogg fire did not identify a problem with the tree at issue.

But Alsup questioned how it was Orsini did not mention the findings of another contractor, Mountain G Enterprises, whose inspectors had apparently earmarked two trees near the origin for thinning or removal that the company admits were not actually removed.

In his order Thursday, Alsup demanded PG&E turn over documentation of Mountain G’s earlier findings to the court.

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